When most people think of honeybees, they think of honey. And while honey is delicious, honeybees actually serve a larger purpose: pollination. Pollination is the process of transferring pollen, which is necessary for many plants to reproduce.
Unfortunately though, the days of the humble honeybee might be limited.
Bees do a lot for humans. Of the 100 foods most consumed by people, bees are responsible for pollinating 70 of them. This includes delicious treats like almonds, apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and blueberries. But the impact of bee devastation on our lives is far greater than being berry-less.
Bees pollinate about 90 percent of the food we eat, and as their population suffers, so will ours. For example, honeybees are responsible for pollinating alfalfa, which is fed to cattle. Beef, milk, butter, and cheese would all get more expensive with less bees, perhaps prohibitively so. It’s not just food either. Cotton depends on bees, too. And if you are a beer drinker, you might have to say goodbye to that in the future, too. Hops, a critical ingredient in beer, is also pollinated by bees.
That’s an awful lot of pollination. But now, bees are under threat, and no one really knows why.
It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. It’s when beehives are simply empty of worker bees – no one is home except for a queen. It would be like cities all over the world suddenly turning into ghost towns.
The current crisis isn’t the first time that bees have gone missing in their 4,500-year old history with people, but this time looks worse.
Bees are not just going missing. Hives are also getting sick, reproducing less, and suffering from a loss of habitat. Plus, bees do best when they are pollinating from a diverse range of plants, not just one, such as corn or canola. Sadly, this is not the case for most commercial bees these days.
These factors lead to bees feeling sick, not living as long, and not producing or pollinating as much. In winter, hives naturally shrink, and production and reproduction slow down. Farmers normally expect to lose about 15 percent of their hives. But in the current bee climate, up to 40 percent of the hive is dying. Often, they simply cannot recover the following spring. Remember that this is a $15 billion industry in the US, and farmers everywhere are concerned – their livelihoods depend on bees.
There might be a simple solution though: plant flowers around fields. The rings of flowers provide more diverse pollen for healthier bees, which in turn will make them more resilient to disease, pests, mites, and other stressors which are currently exacerbating CCD.
And it hopefully means we get to keep snacking on blueberries, drinking beer, and wearing cotton clothes.